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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 12:07 am

Fighting for a little girl

Hearing set in eight-year battle over Sidney Watkins

Shortly after this photo was taken Steven Watkins, far right, was shot to death while trying to visit his daughter Sidney, center.


A legal fight for custody of a little girl whose father was murdered eight years ago will continue next week in the courtroom of Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick.
Sidney Watkins, 9, likely will spend Thanksgiving with paternal relatives thanks to a recent court order transferring custody, at least on a temporary basis, from her mother, Jennifer Watkins.

The battle for Sidney has been long and deadly. Her father Steven was gunned down from behind when he went to pick her up for a court-ordered visit two days before Thanksgiving in 2008 in the midst of a contentious divorce from Jennifer. Shirley Skinner, Jennifer’s grandmother, was convicted of shooting Steven Watkins in the back of the head inside the Ashland home where three generations of Skinner’s family, including Jennifer, lived under the same roof.

Skinner’s relatives, including Jennifer, refused to cooperate with the murder investigation. After Skinner’s arrest, prosecutors offered to lower her bond so that she could be free pending trial if Sidney was allowed to visit with Dale and Penny Watkins, her dead father’s parents. The offer was refused. During Skinner’s murder trial, prosecutors told jurors that Sidney was considered property by Skinner and her relatives, who acted together to protect her father’s killer.

“It was a family affair,” prosecutor Michael Vujovich told the jury during Skinner’s 2010 trial.

With prosecution in connection with her estranged husband’s killing still a possibility, Jennifer invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege and did not testify when Steven Watkins’ parents subsequently won a court order granting visitation with their granddaughter.

“It is hard to believe that a case like this exists, but we all know that it does,” Judge Hardwick said six years ago when granting visitation to Steven Watkins’ parents. “Steven Watkins, Sidney’s dad, was murdered for doing exactly what Dale and Penny Watkins are trying to do today, which is visit Sidney Watkins. … There is an evil in Jennifer Watkins that I do not understand. There is an evil in her that has caused the problem that has brought us here today, and it is an evil that is going to harm this little girl unless Dale and Penny Watkins are granted visitation.”

Rather than allow visits, Jennifer moved to Florida, where she was arrested in 2011 on a warrant issued for failure to allow visitation. She spent five months in jail before winning her fight against extradition to Illinois and was reunited with her daughter, who was cared for by relatives while she was incarcerated. She was arrested again in September after traveling to Massachusetts, where authorities took her daughter away. Sidney now is in the temporary custody of her deceased father’s sister, and Jennifer Watkins is back in Illinois, fighting to get her daughter back.

What began as a fight over visitation for grandparents has morphed into a full-blown custody battle as the Cass County state’s attorney and state child protective authorities attempt to build a case that Jennifer Watkins has neglected her daughter by refusing to allow visitation with paternal grandparents. During a hearing this month, Hardwick, the same judge who called Jennifer Watkins “evil” when awarding grandparent visitation, refused to grant her request to have her daughter returned. Hardwick has found that there is probable cause to believe that Sidney has been neglected by her mother, and Jennifer Watkins’ lawyers likely will get a chance to argue otherwise at a Dec. 2 hearing.

“She’s neglected in the sense that she was deprived of her right to be with her paternal grandparents,” said state appellate prosecutor Ed Parkinson, who prosecuted Shirley Skinner in 2010 and stood in for Cass County state’s attorney Matthew Mays during a hearing this month when Hardwick declined a request to return Sidney to her mother. “It’s not the normal case.”

Michael Goldberg, attorney for Jennifer Watkins, agreed. Neglect cases, he noted, more typically involve parents who don’t properly feed, clothe, house or educate kids.

“You’re not going to find case law saying ‘Is it neglect if you prevent grandparents from getting visitation?’” Goldberg said.

Beyond figuring out whether disobeying a court visitation order amounts to neglect, the judge may also be tasked with ruling on whether the case should properly be heard in Illinois. Parkinson says that Jennifer Watkins is arguing that authorities in Florida, not Illinois, have jurisdiction because she’s a resident of Florida.

“What’s at stake is the legitimacy of the Cass County court and (Cass County state’s attorney) Matt May to file a petition alleging neglect,” Parkinson said.

Because the case involves a juvenile, hearings on the neglect issue will be conducted behind closed doors. Whatever happens, the matter may not end soon. Goldberg said that he believes a decision by Hardwick could be subject to appeal.

“It could take a long time,” Goldberg said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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